A recent article got me thinking about our contact with the natural world. How do we form connections with the natural world and what does it mean to be environmentally aware? For those fortunate few who grew up (or still live) with abundant exposure to the natural world it may be as easy as stepping outside your front door, taking a walk in the woods, or working in your garden. For others with less access it may be more difficult to find such opportunities. If we didn’t grow up with access to nature communicating may seem like asking us to speak a foreign language we’ve never learned.
Last week was tough in a way that I hadn’t expected.
I had two events to go to: the first, a climate change conference put on by our state’s climate change commission, and the second, an agricultural bank board meeting. It was unexpectedly tough to think about the world in such disparate ways within a few days of each other. Tough to reconcile their differences, or not to reconcile but bear those differences when they were not reconcilable. That was the hardest part and it took a toll on me.
There were two different visions of the world that undergirded these two different meetings, two different ideological positions that were the common, unspoken background of most of the attendees at each meeting, and two different set of blindspots. Continue reading “Whiplash & the Breath of the Sea”
My father died on Dec. 24th and my husband and I returned to Minnesota for his funeral. At 87 he had lived a long and full life. It seemed like he went “downhill” very fast. In the last two years each time I saw him I couldn’t believe the changes. In some ways I feel fortunate that the end of his life came relatively quickly. He lived to a “ripe old age” and enjoyed his life almost up to the very end. We were fortunate that a family wedding last August brought most of our family together in celebration and my father’s health was still good enough to share in it. The picture above of my father was the one taken last August and the one we used at the funeral. When the end came it came relatively quickly, although I know it didn’t feel that way to my mother or sisters who sat by his side for four days.
His memorial service was a beautiful celebration of his life. It was held at the small Lutheran church that our family attended most of my life. It was bitter sweet. The church was filled with people and many of them came up to me to offer condolences. They would often say “You probably don’t remember me…” and all too often I didn’t. Many people I hadn’t seen for years, even decades, but their words always touched me. Their stories brought tears and laughter. They all thought so much of my father. How can one explain what it means to belong to a community? These were my people. I was Bob’s daughter. I belonged. Somehow sharing with each of them it felt as if the emptiness I was feeling was filled. The hole in my heart that I wasn’t expecting…was somehow filled. These people in one way or another made me feel that my father was important. His life mattered and by extension …my life mattered.
How absolutely essential it is to belong in community. Our roots go deep and our soil is enriched because our father tended it. He wasn’t perfect. Nor are we. But we would not be who we are if not for him. To me he was my idol because I was the proverbial “daddy’s girl”. He was my first teacher and I learned so much from him. I would not be who I am without his influence. We belong to a family within this community. My mother, my siblings, my nieces and nephew, their spouses, their children…we gathered together as family. We cried, we laughed, we hugged, we looked at pictures, and we hoisted our drinks. We came together as family. This is a time when you feel we are more than just individual people living our separate lives.
I could feel my father’s spirit and I know he was smiling. I thought “Look what you started dad. Look what you left behind.” I could feel his approval and his love. His spirit was with us. The mystery of life came full circle, we are born, we live and reproduce, we die…the way we only hope it can be. We all hope we can live a long and full life and in the end to know it is our time, to know that we were part of something larger than our self.
A week before he died my sister asked him about death. “Are you ready?” His answer was straight forward. “Yes. I’m pretty sure I am. ” Can we hope for more than that?
Happy New Year everyone!
I have been super remiss in not giving a shout-out to the amazingly talented folks at Anima Monday, which I like to think of as a sister-blog. (I’ve been super distracted, more on that later.) I’m in love with all of them over there. Go visit now!
This week they have posted an interview with Emma Restall Orr, whose book, The Wakeful World, takes animism to the gladiator ring of Western philosophy in the Academy. Not for the faint of heart, such an endeavor! And Orr does it admirably, with heart as well as intellectual rigor.
But the contributors to Anima Monday are her equal in their wild, fierce, generous, and humble insights into what it means to live in this world, fully alive, fully present, and in love with life, in all its glory and pain.
Animists of the world unite! 🙂
image: Apostle St. Simon the Zelot
When are we willing to fight for our views? Simon the Zelot was a disciple of Jesus. He advocated aggression with the Romans. He literally fought for his views. I find it odd that Simon was one of the twelve disciples because Jesus seemed very much against violence (unless one considers the story of the money changers in the temple!) Politically I consider myself a moderate independent and normally I do not view political views something to fight over…disagree certainly, but this does not include violence!
the pendulum swings to the end of its travel
the shortening of days slows and stops
the full cold moon lights the world
the wind briefly holds its breath
the tides come full and stop
a moment of absolute calm
to breathe, to be present
before beginning again
the high holy night
I’ve been investigating the connection, if it’s there, between the substrate of human emotions and the ways we respond to climate change, and trying to do so from an orthodox scientific perspective.
There’s plenty of peer-reviewed work out there framing climate change in terms of people’s values, attitudes and behaviours. It’s generally presented for the purpose of encouraging better methods for communicating how urgent the threat of climate change has become and/or better measures for mitigating and adapting to that threat. But I’m looking for something about people that I believe springs from deep within, deeper than values, attitudes and behaviours. There’s also a decent body of literature on our psychological and emotional responses to climate change, but it lacks the grounding in hard science, hard enough to chip your teeth on, that I need for a credible academic study. It seems that ’emotions’ are slippery terrain, easy(ish) to describe in commonplace terms, but difficult to pin down in the form of findings that can be systematically and falsifiably tested.
So I found my way to the work of the late neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp (I’m sad to say he died last year), who meets my criteria for a rigorous but not entirely dispassionate master of the field. And it’s drawn me off on a bit of a tangent. Here’s what I learned:
Feelings such as grief, rage, playful joy, loving care and several others live deep within the mind, and can be observed – via brain-imaging – in the deepest, oldest parts of the human brain. They can also be artificially aroused using ‘deep brain stimulation’. Panksepp dedicated his research to compiling evidence for the existence this handful of core emotional systems, which appear to be the source for the many complex social feelings that people generally experience and talk about as ’emotions’. His studies indicate that the fundamental, underlying packages of emotional feelings are not only innate to us, from birth, but that we also share them with our mammal cousins, and to varying degrees with other creatures too. Which is to say they are experienced, in the minds of creatures great and small, as bona fide ‘feelings’.
That won’t come as news to anyone with an empathetic interest in living creatures. Or to children, or I gather to members of most indigenous societies in the world. The kinds of people for whom the personhood of animals has never been in doubt. And for Panksepp it’s just an unsentimental fact, supported by a preponderance of neuroscientific evidence. Our fellow creatures have feelings too – and by extension they experience consciousness in ways not so very different from ourselves.
But by a quirk of neuro-biological science, conclusions (no matter how rigorously arrived at) which undermine (no matter how unintentionally) the conceit of human exceptionalism, are considered unsophisticated and therefore can be quietly marginalised and disregarded. As if that whole business with Darwin and the monkeys didn’t teach us much at all. Consciousness and the capacity for feelings make us unique among all life-forms, so the story goes. So Panksepp’s work, while not exactly heretical, isn’t yet mainstream.
Maybe it would just be too inconvenient for a science which has been in thrall to behaviourism for the best part of a century, to let go of the notion of non-human creatures as, in effect, mindless automata – experimental subjects (no consent needed!) and living demonstrations of the efficacy of the “reward and punishment” approach to behavioural control. There’s also the conundrum of trying to explore the pre-linguistic depths of the mind using science, a language-based system of reason. Science seems intrinsically happier grappling with the topic of cognition, a language-based function of the human brain, rather than dealing with deep emotion, which is an evolutionary feature of potentially all animal minds (despite the workings of deep emotion being in some sense more rudimentary and easier to evidence than the freakish complexities of cortical-level cognitive consciousness). In fact, the dominant discourse in neuroscience would still deny that word ‘mind’ – associated with subjective consciousness – to any vessel of non-cognitively experienced feelings.
I’m certain, however, that the rest of the field will, in time, catch up with Panskepp on this. And I’m hopeful that there are links to be explored between the deep emotional substrate of human life and the story of climate change.
To sign off I’d like to share this extract from the coda to Panksepp and Biven’s The Archaeology of Mind: neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions:
Animals…are sentient beings, and their affective capacities [ie ability to experience subjective feelings] arise from the same type of neural soil as we have. Humans may be abundantly more “rational,” and more “reflective” about their states of mind, but mammals all experience emotions affectively. And as the clinical studies of Merker (2007) and Shewmon et al. (1999) have revealed, those feelings arise from very deep regions of both human and animal brains. Obviously, we humans can dwell on the existential aspects of our lives more deeply than other species. After all, we can speak and think symbolically. But this does not give us privileged access to raw affective experiences. What a terribly empty and lonely world it would be if we humans were the only conscious creatures within the inextricably interwoven fabric of life. What a wonderful relief it is when we realize that there are bubbles of consciousness wherever our fellow animals roam the earth.
We are not alone. How wonderful indeed!
I was there. I saw it one day, the shimmer – “the brilliant shimmer of the biosphere.” I saw it in leaves after the rain – later, in a fishes’ scales and an animal’s fur, in the iridescent skin of my own infant daughter. I saw it and drank it in, in wonder and desire and gratitude. Mostly wonder.
Shimmer is what I care about. I didn’t have a word for it until I read Deborah Rose Bird’s essay: “Shimmer: When Everything You Love is Being Trashed” in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet
Trees and stars are masters of shimmer, that is why trees are beyond value.
You can’t know when it will come upon you, it’s like grace that way but more wild. Wild as any newborn, wild as any animal. You know it is shimmer because it’s all that you can see (or hear or smell or touch or otherwise sense.) It’s more than you can sense – a revelation or a vision – but it’s just there in the fleeting moment and the ordinary thing that you passed a hundred times but now it is revealed to you as if it were the burning bush or the shining void. Or the melody that the world is making that you hear and yet don’t hear. That is playing through you. Or the smell of a memory that echoes through the rooms of time.
Shimmer is the world being itself and for once you happen to be there with it. For once, you see it.
Yes, shimmer is love. The appearance of love to a mortal being through some kind of miracle.
And shimmer is what we stand to lose.
Thank you to the indigenous people of Australia for their gift of shimmer, and to Deborah Bird Rose for carrying it into English.
We all have our point of view, literally and figuratively. I have lived in a home powered by solar energy for more than seven years. I am convinced that more Americans must do the same, and soon, if we are going to have any chance of keeping climate change from becoming catastrophic. Continue reading “Differing Views”
How (capitalist) money and nature intertwine and bring multiple life-worlds into being is one of the themes of Anna Tsingʻs book on the matsutake mushroom, highly valued in Japanese culture and cuisine as a signal of autumn and a nostalgic reminder of the rural bounty of pre-industrial Japan. Tsing, who teaches anthropology at UC Santa Cruz and at Aarhus University in Denmark, is part of a network of thinkers who are forging new ways to write about human interactions with nature. Like the South American anthropologists associated with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, the Santa Cruz cohort centered around Donna Hathaway have built a framework that allows the conversation between humans and non-humans in making landscapes and worlds to be taken seriously in academia. This is one step to making such thinking possible in the wider culture, rather than marginalized as the ravings of women and mystics or backwardness of indigenous people and cultures. Tsingʻs book, which has won numerous awards, is a lively and personal account of the people who interact with the matsutake mushroom, whether immigrant Lao or Mien mushroom foragers in the regrowth forests of Oregon, Yunnanese middlemen who use traditional ethnic ties to construct a supply chain, or the Japanese customers who relish the mushroom resonance with rural ways of life. Tsingʻs project is a study of the Anthropocene and “The Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet” (the title of her more recent edited volume) and the kind of “arts of noticing” and thinking that she champions as so urgently necessary to change the way we think about and relate to our world.